Justice or vengeance? The question was at the heart of a national debate last week after Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O’Connor, agreed to surrender to Hungary an 88-year-old man accused of helping murder an 18-year-old Jew in Budapest in 1944.
Charles (Karoly) Zentai, who arrived in Australia in 1950, was discovered living in Perth in 2005 after the Simon Wiesenthal Centre mounted a last-gasp campaign to flush out alleged Nazis in the twilight of their lives.
He vehemently denies the accusation, saying he left Budapest the day before Peter Balasz was murdered for not wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David.
The Wiesenthal Centre’s Dr Efraim Zuroff said this week he felt “a tremendous sense of vindication” and praised the “courage” and “wisdom” of Mr O’Connor, whose decision paves the way for the first-ever extradition from Australia of an alleged Nazi war criminal. Should he stand trial, he will be the first Australian to be tried for Nazi war crimes.
“The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of killers,” Mr Zuroff said time and again as the wheels of justice slowly turned over the past four years, with Mr Zentai’s defence team mounting legal appeals. His lawyers confirmed this week they will lodge one final appeal against the decision.
“Although he is accused of only one murder, Zentai’s alleged crime should not be ignored,” Mr Zuroff wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday.
“Nor should he be spared prosecution due to his advanced age. While today he is frail, we should always remember that when he was in his physical prime, he is alleged to have murdered an innocent teenager simply because he was Jewish.”
Dr Colin Rubenstein, of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, agreed. “There is no statute of limitations on murder, and especially for participation in genocide, and our sympathies should be with the victims and their families.”
But Mr Zentai’s lawyer, Denis Barich, described the decision to extradite his client as “quite extraordinary”.
“Here we have an 88-year-old man with a heart condition … being held in custody just because a foreign country from half-way around the world wants to question him.”
Mr Zuroff, who has been scathing about the “lack of political will” shown by successive Australian governments, dismisses out of hand such arguments, just as he has dismissed other sceptics over the years.
In his new book, Operation Last Chance, he recalls that when he visited England in 1987 to urge its government to look into alleged Nazis living there, The Times opined that Britain’s laws “enshrine principles of justice tempered with mercy not vengeance” while the Telegraph argued that “Nazi hunting has become a new and frankly distasteful blood sport”.
Now, however, Mr Zuroff is hoping Mr Zentai will not suffer the same fate as Konrads Kalejs, the last alleged Nazi living in Australia.
He died in 2001 while he was awaiting extradition to his native Latvia on charges of war crimes.
No one in the Jewish community here has publicly questioned the wisdom of hunting down wheelchair-bound octogenarians more than five years after Sir Simon Wiesenthal himself declared that “my work is done” and that “if there were any [Nazis] left, they’d be too old and weak to stand trial today”.
But there are some rumblings about Mr Zuroff’s hot pursuit of this cold case.
As one former senior Jewish official, who declined to be named, said: “It’s a fait accomplis for the Jewish community to support.
“For better or for worse, we were locked into absolute support once the ball had been set rolling.”